At SXSW, Sanders’ campaign staff reveals how the Vermont senator is putting digital tools in the hands of voters to drive his presidential ticket.
The 2016 race for the U.S. presidency is not only a joust between Republican and Democratic ideals; it’s also a game of who can out-market the other. The combination of technology and voter connectivity available today has allowed candidates to reach audiences in more targeted and impactful ways than ever before.
Sometimes, however, technology is more hindrance than helpful. As Becky Bond, senior advisor for Bernie Sanders 2016 noted at SXSW in Austin this past Monday, the cacophony of digital engagement activities can drive more political “noise” than actual voter impact. So candidates must not only compete against other politicians to get their message heard, but also against the entire Internet’s slew of online petitions and social media posts, as well.
All this noise poses a significant challenge for campaign staffers tasked with identifying supporters and getting them to perform meaningful actions, including voting and assisting with phone solicitation for commitments such as campaign contributions or volunteering (phonebanking). Social raves and rants can be great for awareness, but rarely drive real action. As Saikat Chakrabarti, Bernie Sanders 2016’s director of organization tech, put it, marketers need to ask, “What are the things that let people interact personally to get each other motivated and involved?”
For the Sanders organization, the answer lies in making digital tools more accessible to the public. Rather than having campaign officials solely assign political volunteers tasks, the Vermont senator’s organization is putting tools into the hands of the people to allow them to self-organize.
“Instead of trying to find the few segments to talk to, what if we could talk to everyone?” Bond asked.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Sanders’ staff is ditching time-honored campaign tactics such as email altogether; they’re just reprioritizing them.
Bond and Chakrabarti, along with Senior Advisor Zack Exley, spoke about the presidential hopeful’s marketing tactics the day before this past Tuesday’s primaries. Here’s how they’re trying to help voters “feel the Bern” through traditional and nontraditional on- and offline tactics.
Every candidate has his or her own website where voters can donate to the campaign, read about the issues the candidate stands for, and sign up for communications. Sanders’ website does the same; but it also allows supporters to mobilize on their own.
In addition to signing up to volunteer, supporters can use Sanders’ online event management tool to find local events, such as phonebanking, canvassing, carpooling, and barnstorm gatherings. They can also use the platform—created by the supporting developer group Coders for Sanders—to host their own debate watching party, phonebanking event, or volunteer activity. For volunteers unsure of how these events work, the website provides content in the form of videos and guides on how volunteers can host events and phonebank. The Sanders organization even provides Bernie BNB, another Web application created by Coders for Sanders that allows people to offer up their homes or search for places to stay while campaigning on the road.
When it comes to Sanders’ social strategy, Exley described it as more voter-run than campaign-staff driven.
“In a way, volunteers are running the social strategy because there are literally thousands of Facebook groups,” he said.
But the local Facebook pages are only the start. Coders for Sanders created a Connect With Bernie social media organizing tool that allows supporters on Facebook and Twitter to receive activation messages from the campaign that they’re then encouraged to share. Supporters can use the Bernie Friend Finder to participate in Facebanking—a process through which voters identify which of their friends in certain states like Bernie on Facebook and send them a message encouraging them to vote. Plus, Sanders has a “Bernie Sanders for President—2016” Reddit thread that posts related campaign content and urges followers to phonebank, Facebook, and canvass.
Allowing the supports to message potential voters, instead of relying solely the campaign staff to do so, can present concerns that many brand marketers deal with when it comes to relinquishing brand control to consumers. However, Bond seemed confident in allowing volunteers to spread the campaign’s word.
“If we couldn’t allow for mistakes because volunteers were doing things, we couldn’t scale,” she said.
In addition to using mobile in the traditional sense for phonebanking purposes, the Sanders campaign uses text to send mobile alerts to supporters and provides text-to-donate functionality. The campaign also has a slew of apps. Take the Bernie QR code app, for instance, which allows volunteers hosting or attending events to collect contact information. Here’s how it works, according to the Coders for Sanders website: Volunteers invite event attendees to visit a specific website on their smartphone and fill out a form asking for their name, email address, and ZIP Code. The attendees are then sent a QR code, which the volunteer can scan to process the attendees’ sign-up.
The campaign organization also has Field the Bern. According to the Coders for Sanders website, the canvassing app allows volunteers to log in via Facebook or email and identify which homes in their local areas have or haven’t been visited. They can even save the details of their conversations with potential voters, including who they talked to and which issues they discussed, as well read content about the issues that Sanders supports.
Although the Sanders campaign organization uses email to recruit volunteers and invite people to events, it primarily uses the channel to drive donations, Bond says. These emails, she noted, also aim to spread Sanders’ messages from the perspective of the candidate and his campaign staff.
Volunteers can also send peer-to-peer emails through Sanders’ site to drive people to back to it.
In addition to all the technology that Sanders staffers use for campaigning, the team still gets personal the old-fashioned way: by hosting in-person, local events. Staffers invite people to come together and volunteer to host a phonebank or go door-to-door. The Sanders team then uses (gasp!) pen and paper to record their data—including each volunteer’s name, contact information, and which days and times they could host an event.
“This is part of the real technology,” Exley said, “good old-fashioned paper.”
The campaign staff then takes a picture of the data sheets, sends them to their data-entry volunteers, and sends alerts to people who opted in to host, Exley explained. Although it may seem like a dated tactic, it shows that the Sanders staff is willing to start a movement one data point at a time.
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